Eye on Video: Watch out for 4K Ultra HDTV

Why it could be security's next big game changer


Technology has always helped us see clearer - from the first crude microscopes in the late 1500s to the far reaching eye of the Hubble telescope - humans have forever been driven to find ways to expand the view of the naked eye.  

We’ve seen this drive play out especially in the consumer electronics world with both the history of the television and point-and-shoot camera. These technological advances have had a major influence in video surveillance, and are a driving force behind IP video innovation. Dissatisfaction with the first grainy black-and-white analog video images helped paved the way for the shift to today’s digital acceptance. And with innovations in IP video driven by Moore’s Law, we’ve seen tremendous progress from VGA and SVGA to the HDTV and megapixel video so common today.  

Then along comes 4K Ultra HDTV to help us see even clearer.

Four times 1080p HDTV resolution

Like many engineering feats, Ultra High Definition Television, or UHDTV, grew out of consumer demand for even higher image quality. With twice the horizontal and vertical resolution of 1080p HDTV, the format creates an amazing experience for cinema enthusiasts.

Like HDTV, UHDTV adheres to specific entertainment industry standards via the SMPTE and ITU-R to ensure consistent image quality.

  • Resolution: at least 3840x2160 or 8.3 megapixels
  • Frame rate: up to 120 fps
  • Aspect ratio: 16:9
  • Color fidelity: much larger color palette than HDTV

When this technology first hit the television market in 2012, the Consumer Electronics Industry (CEA) named “Ultra HD” (UHD) as the de facto industry term. However, similar to how it became common to refer to our flatscreen resolutions as 720 or 1080, the industry soon adopted the catchier “4K” moniker to represent Ultra HD since the standard offers nearly 4,000 pixels across a screen.

Whether a manufacturer calls the new resolution UHDTV, UHD or 4K, the most important factor is to confirm they are following a true industry standard. If not, we run the risk of “4K” being hijacked for marketing purposes similarly to how “HD” was used to imply the standard performance we’re used to at home for resolution, frame rate, aspect ratio and color fidelity, when it really only corresponded to pixel count.  

Moving 4K from entertainment to surveillance

So how will 4K play out in the security arena? The obvious attraction is that higher resolution brings out more details, making it easier for security professionals to identify people, objects and incidents from greater distances. Users invariably want to look closer at recorded video or digitally zoom into live events to look for crucial details. Because for security, more is always better, right?

Well, not always. The distance to an object from a camera will ultimately determine how many pixels are needed for identification. There are still plenty of surveillance applications where an SVGA camera will provide more than enough detail for identification.

Then of course there’s bandwidth and storage. In the simplest terms, four times 1080p resolution means four times the bandwidth. Thus, efficient compression technologies will play an increasingly important role in the new world of 4K.  

There is also the issue of 4K image sensors needing more light to activate the smaller, more numerous pixels. This reduces dynamic range and makes current 4K cameras unsuitable for certain surveillance applications where you need video despite low-light conditions. But given Moore’s Law, you can rest assured that manufacturers will conquer this limitation in the not too distant future.

Brainstorming applications for 4K

Despite the limitations that always accompany new technology innovations, there are still endless opportunities for 4K to be the smart choice for security practitioners. For instance, in outdoor applications such as multi-acre parking lots, long fence lines or coastal monitoring, 4K cameras could deliver amazing coverage with the ability to digitally zoom in from far away. With four times the resolution of 1080p HDTV, end users could leverage wider angle lenses for broader fields of view while still maintaining the appropriate number of pixels on target for detection, recognition and identification. Indoors, 4K cameras would be great surveillance tools for monitoring large, open warehouses or hangars.

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